Whatever Happened to Bigelow’s Space Hotels?

Image (Credit): Artist’s rending of Bigelow’s orbiting inflatable hotels. (Bigelow Space Operations)

Do you remember all of the talk about inflatable space hotels? Back in 2018, the U.S. space company Bigelow stated these expandable space station components would be launched by 2021:

With the two launches of B330-1 and B330-2 expected in 2021, the time is now in 2018 to begin BSO activity. These single structures that house humans on a permanent basis will be the largest, most complex structures ever known as stations for human use in space.

Created in 1998, Bigelow licensed the expandable component idea from NASA in 2000 and tried to make it commercially viable. Originally called the TransHab, NASA had developed the idea as a new component for the International Space Station (ISS).  Bigelow eventually sold the idea back to NASA as the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM), which was successfully attached to the ISS in 2016. While NASA originally planned to jettison the BEAM from the ISS after two-years of testing and validation, it remained a part of the ISS.

Bigelow saw possibilities for a lunar depot or base, while NASA saw the BEAM as a model for cargo trips to Mars:

The journey to Mars is complex and filled with challenges that NASA and its partners are continuously working to solve. Before sending the first astronauts to the Red Planet, several rockets filled with cargo and supplies will be deployed to await the crews’ arrival. Expandable modules, which are lower-mass and lower-volume systems than metal habitats, can increase the efficiency of cargo shipments, possibly reducing the number of launches needed and overall mission costs.

So after this success with the ISS and ideas for the future, where is Bigelow today? In March 2020, as COVID hit, the company laid off all of its employees and has yet to return to business. That does not mean this idea of expandable components disappears with the company, but it may need a new champion if it is to be part of the future space program.

Maybe Mr. Musk is looking for something to buy as part of his future Martian mission.

Image (Credit): NASA astronaut Randy Bresnik looks through the hatch of the International Space Station’s Bigelow Expandable Aerospace Module (BEAM) on July 31, 2017. (NASA, Randy Bresnik)